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Feature Story

by Bob Hagin

July 25, 1997

In the past, we've described automotive self-help books that run the gauntlet from leasing cars effectively, to where to complain when your car or truck doesn't work right. But there's a world of auto books available that are made for serious or quasi-serious auto buffs. Rather than try to list them all, I've broken them down into categories. Most are on view in major book stores under the simple heading "Automotive:"

COFFEE TABLE - Auto coffee table books are short on text but heavy on large, glossy photos. The range of subject matter includes rotogravures of famous makes ("Duesenberg: Mightiest American Motorcar," MG Photo Archive"), models ("Corvette Milestones," "Ferrari 250 Testa Rosa"), specialized vehicles ("Farm Tractors: A Living History," "Antique American Motorcycle"), genetic vehicles ("Woodys," "Pictorial History of American Trucks") and oddballs ("Lemons," "The World's Strangest Automobiles"). The reason for the Coffee Table label is that they're usually too large for a book shelf and only fit on a flat surface. Not much good for research, but the photos are usually great.

HISTORY - On the other hand, auto history books are often so detailed that they really tell readers more than they need or want to know. "Bugatti" is typical of these in that it contains a plethora of vintage black-and-white photos plus detailed schematics and even more detailed technical details of dozens of models. "Ford: The Men and The Machine" and "My Years with General Motors" dive into details of the corporations as well as personal profiles of the people behind them. "The Complete History of The Japanese Car" and "British Sports Cars" are typical of history books that chronicle a specific time span of a particular segment of the auto world.

FACTORY PUFF - As its name implies, this auto book genre is produced by authors who are prompted by the various auto makers to promote their newest product, a new direction that the company is taking or simply self-aggrandizement. I have a couple of examples of these and they are usually found in the business section of the major book stores. Since they are of limited interest, they are sent free as "desk copies" to auto writers and columnists. I recently received "The Critical Path," an explanation of the latest business machinations of the Chrysler Corporation and "The Saab-Scania Story." Sometimes they can be used as a research tool but they make pretty dull general reading.

REFERENCE - These auto books are really more on the order of encyclopedias and are of interest to more serious autophiles. Prime examples of this type of heavyweight tome are "The New Encyclopedia of Motorcars - 1885 to Present" and "Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats." They give short, concise descriptions of the vehicles or people involved, but don't go into the same kind of detailed information as subject-specific autobiographies or histories. They're large and expensive but are highly treasured by their buyers.

DRIVING TRAINING - These are not the type of driver training text books used in your sophomore year for driver education classes. Those books told you how to make safe left turns, what the consequences were of not checking your tire pressures every week and included gory color photos of the results of careless or reckless driving. These books encourage readers to negotiate high-speed turns by the shortest, quickest means, how to keep other drivers from passing and, in general, going as fast as possible, preferably under safe conditions. Typical titles are "Drive To Win," "Secrets of Solo Racing," and "The Technique of Motor Racing." They come as videos too, but the "student" can't keep a VCR in the glove box for quick reference.

BIOGRAPHY - Like all other books on the lives of famous or notorious people, the story is told from the viewpoint of the writer. "Diesel's Engine" is a typical biography written in a technical manner while autobiographies like "My Years With General Motors" and "All But My Life" range from staid volumes on the dry life story of the head of an auto corporation to the romanticized life of a race driver. The slant is totally dependent on the degree of objectivity of the "as told to" ghost writer since few have the skills to tell their own stories.

MISCELLANEOUS - There are some "auto" books that simply don't fit into any of the above categories. "Car Hops and Curb Service," "The American Gas Station," "Route 66 Remembered," and "Gas Pump Collector's Guide" are all bits of motorized Americana but they aren't about cars, trucks, driving, or car people. But they are great fun to read (I have several myself) and they make great gifts for anyone who has even a modicum of interest in things automotive. "Pedal Car Restoration and Price Guide" is one of my favorites since I spent many hours as a father repairing these machines.

There are lots of auto books out there besides those slanted toward giving information on how to avoid getting ripped off when buying a vehicle or getting one repaired. The automobile is a big part of contemporary American culture and if I had my way, the subject would be a compulsory lower division course in every college and university in the country.